Normally, scientists compensate study participants with money. But a recent neuroscience study, one group of researchers compensated their study participants with an immersive art experience that they guided using their minds.
Much in the same way that you can see your heart rate on a screen and then see if you can make your heart beat faster or slower, it is possible to see some manifestation of your brain signals on a screen using brain-computer interface devices. For a recent art-science installation called My Virtual Dream, held in Toronto, Canada, volunteers strapped on wireless Muse brain-computer interface headsets and learned how to manipulate images with their minds to create a shared 'virtual dream.' What came out of this unique overnight installation was not only amazing art, but also a neuroscience paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.
When your mental state changes, brain activity changes and you can see the consequences of those changes manifested on a screen while wearing a brain-computer interface headsets. So your avatar might show fireworks when you're focusing intently and a slow diffusion of light when you're relaxing, for example. Monitoring how quickly the 523 volunteers were able to master controlling these changes yielded insights on how human brains interact with these computer interface systems.
"We showed in the paper that they can do this remarkably fast and that we can predict how well they will do it based on their brain's profile when they first came in," senior study author Anthony McIntosh told Tech Times.
My Virtual Dream took place in a 60-foot dome comprised of screens that displayed virtual dream animations controlled by the volunteers' brains. Participants came in half-hour shifts all night, from sundown to sunrise. After a brief training session that involved playing simple games by using their minds to control an avatar, they transitioned to a collective dream exercise.
The "lullaby" phase featured a live singer and band, and the graphics on the dome changed to a much more elaborate video dream. These were composed of pre-drawn animations, but the collective brain waves of the "dreamers" controlled the intensity and mixture of colors and how the characters moved and acted. The band also improvised based on what they saw on the dome.
"I was there for the entire 12-hour period and I must say that I don't think I saw the same dream sequence twice, so this really was a unique experience for both the audience and the dreamers," McIntosh said.
Participants controlled the sequences by going back and forth between relaxing and concentrating. These two mental states are related to two different brain frequencies called alpha and beta. People who came in with lower beta frequencies tended to learn to modulate the best, according the the researchers' analyses of the brain data collected from the installation.
McIntosh cautions, however, that, "it is important to keep in mind that this wasn't a very well-controlled environment" compared to those typically used in scientific experiments conducted in a lab.
Still, the process of using the brain to control an avatar, known as neurofeedback, is an exciting an exciting and extremely useful one.
"The applications for neurofeedback are everything from gaming-which there's a huge industry for right now-to helping with brain health and therapy," he said.